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Author Q&A on the Book Simplify Work


Key Takeaways

  • Despite the tremendous advances being made in technology in this era of the 4th Industrial Revolution, organisations and individuals are not seeing productivity improvements, in fact complexity is causing productivity to decline
  • With industries being disrupted at an accelerated speed organizations need to be able to innovate well and fast
  • They no longer can afford to be bogged down in slow decision making, risk aversion and siloed protectionism
  • Ideas such as Design Thinking can be used to help reduce complexity and enable productivity
  • The time is ripe to simplify work and liberate innovation, productivity and engagement


Jesse W. Newton has written a book titled  Simplify Work - crushing complexity to liberate innovation, productivity and engagement. In the book, Jesse explores the challenges individuals and organisations face due to complexity in the workplace.  

Despite the tremendous advances being made in technology in this era of the 4th Industrial Revolution, organisations and individuals are not seeing productivity improvements, in fact complexity is causing productivity to decline.

The book explores the reasons behind the growth in complexity, draws on ideas such as Design Thinking to help find ways to reduce complexity and provides advice on common areas to reduce complexity both at the organisational and the personal level.

The book can be purchased here and InfoQ readers can access a sample chapter here.

Jesse spoke to InfoQ about the book.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book - what is the problem you are addressing?

Newton: Based on over 100 client engagements and extensive research it is clearly evident that organizational complexity is wreaking havoc on peak performance. The opportunity for organizations and individuals to take a step back and identify all the stuff that is getting in the way of what matters most is significant. With industries being disrupted at an accelerated speed organizations need to be able to innovate well and fast. They no longer can afford to be bogged down in slow decision making, risk aversion and siloed protectionism. The time is ripe to simplify work and liberate innovation, productivity and engagement.

InfoQ: Who is the book for - who should read it?

Newton: The book is for anyone that has worked in an organization and feel like there could be a better way of getting work done in the 21st century. Organizational complexity takes many forms and I’m sure people have had varying exposure to it. It could be frustration with having to report to multiple bosses, trying to understand who is responsible for what in a complicated matrix structure, or simply wasting time in too many low value meetings or keeping on top of excessive email.

InfoQ: You say that organisations are becoming more and more complex and this complexity gets in the way of productivity.  Isn’t complexity just a natural response to organisational growth?

Newton: The book clearly acknowledges that as a business grows complexity increases. It is how complexity is dealt with that sets companies apart. Traditionally organizations would add more structures, processes and committees as they grew. This added layers of management, further disconnecting leaders from the various front-lines. They would also add more controls, metrics and reports to facilitate appropriate control over the performance of the business. This inevitably has led to most large organizations becoming complicated messes. People get stuck in their little corner of the business, it breeds intra-competition and agility and rich innovation is stifled. Leading organizations have introduced new organization structures that have turned this traditional model on its head. They are able to effectively manage rising complexity by establishing small autonomous teams that are focused on a particular strategic priority. These teams are not controlled from above, instead are given free reign to think, innovate, test and fail. It is this model that has enabled companies like Amazon and Apple to continue to consistently produce the breakthrough innovation that sets them apart from other similar sized organizations.

InfoQ: What is driving the 4th Industrial Revolution and how should this help us achieve productivity?

Newton: The technology driving the 4th industrial revolution is machine learning, internet of things and big data. We now have the technical capability to automate anything that can be standardized and is repeatable. The massive implication of this is that we can now pull human beings out of repeatable, monotonous roles and into roles we they are problem solving, innovating and designing. This shift will deliver the next step change in productivity and drive new innovations that will lift living standards on a level that past revolutions have delivered. What is holding most organizations back from realizing the productivity step-change that this revolution promises is the complex nature of their operations. They are holding onto 20th century models of managing work and not taking deliberate steps to simplify work and get re-focused on true strategic priorities.

InfoQ: You draw on Design Thinking as a key to reducing complexity - why is design thinking so important?

Newton: Designers are inherently innovators and problem solvers who seek to simplify. People take for granted how their lives are shaped by design, from the physical feel of a seat to the convenience of an online shopping experience to the basic value of windshield wiper. Design is everywhere and is constantly seeking to improve the human experience. It seems intuitive that design or “design thinking”, if it works on products and consumer experiences, could also help to sort out the debilitating complexity that is holding organizations back.

Design Thinking encourages really immersing yourself in the customer’s or client’s situation. Rather than the typical consulting approach, which is dependent on heavy data analytics, the design thinking approach encourages deep observation, conversations and quality listening so that rich insights can be gathered that can fuel an effective ideation process. Ideation is encouraged to go as wide as possible. Capture as many weird and wonderful ideas, which are then organized into themes or groupings. Once a wide range of ideas have been captured you can begin to converge on the ideas that will deliver the greatest impact on performance with the least execution risk.

InfoQ: What are some common mistakes that people make when they start to tackle complexity in their organisations, and how can they be avoided?

Newton: They go too narrow and they don’t fully commit to simplifying work are two common mistakes people take when seeking to tackle complexity. I worked with a large consumer packaged goods company where they were seeking to crush complexity and a key leader would eagerly pay lip service to the importance of simplifying work and crushing complexity but would quickly turn around to his large global team and randomly request performance reports that would take precedence over everything else, thereby fueling unnecessary busy work and pulling people from their strategic priorities.

InfoQ: Are there some common areas where leaders should start looking for unnecessary complexity in their organisations?

Newton: There are five areas of an organization that are typical sources of organizational complexity. They are strategy, structure, process, system and culture. I go into each of these in detail in the book.

InfoQ: Given that there are so many ways in which complexity creeps in, what should readers look at first, how do they prioritize the improvement efforts?

Newton: From a broad perspective crushing complexity can be attacked in three stages: 1. Get clear on what matters most; there has to be a clear and aligned understanding of the strategy and the key strategic priorities for decisions to be made on what to let go of. 2. Understand current context; a deep understanding needs to be established on how work gets done today. Once there is clarity on what activities people are working on and how much time is spent on each, focus can be put on those activities that are doing the most damage. 3. Remove the things that are non-core. Redesign and simply remove the activities that are pulling people from their highest priorities.

InfoQ: You talk about the need to “Simplify You” - what advice do you have for individuals who are caught in the complexity trap?

Newton: We individually are also responsible for driving complexity. We live highly cluttered lives, are addicted to checking our phones and are too easily interrupted and distracted. To simplify you I recommend six things:

  1. Reduce clutter
  2. Get clear on what is most important
  3. Plan effectively
  4. Avoid distractions and interruptions
  5. Optimise emails and meetings
  6. Nurture and protect your energy

I go into detail on each of these tactics in the book.

About the Book Author

Jesse Newton is the author of Simplify Work; Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity and Engagement. He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work; a global management consulting firm that helps organizations throw off the shackles of debilitating complexity and reignite top performance. Contacts: LinkedInFacebookTwitter.

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